Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews
Saturday, Oct. 1
By Tim Simmers and Mark Hedin
October's customary Indian summer in San Francisco was nowhere in
evidence Saturday morning as Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek kicked
things off at the Banjo Stage, highlighting the playing of two-time
IBMA fiddler of the year Michael Cleveland in a set heavy on gospel
tunes that closed with a cover of the '70s Stealers Wheel pop hit,
"Stuck in the Middle With You."
Next up was Alison Brown, who, with her jazzy approach on banjo and
guitar, occupies a unique niche in the bluegrass world. Introduced
as "Warren (Hellman)'s inspiration to take up the banjo," the blond
Southern California native led her five-piece band in two instrumentals
to begin her set.
"We're happy to be here in the San Francisco fog," she said, followed
by a few words about how she "left my job as an investment banker
and hooked up with Alison Kraus to live the bluegrass dream" before
picking up a guitar and charging into "Deep Gap," an instrumental
inspired by Doc Watson, and "My Favorite Marsha," a tribute to
astronaut Marsha Ivins, who chose some of Brown's recordings as
wake-up music on the Mir space station.
Brown's florid playing and the melody of the song, said an impressed
Katy Hardwick, who'd never encountered Brown's playing before,
"reminded me of the Allman Brothers' 'Little Martha.'"
Brown stretched out her jazzy influences with "Django Latino" and
"Hungariana" while giving the rest of her quartet - piano, electric
bass, and drums, with special guest fiddler Joe Craven looking out
from under a sombrero - plenty of room to show off their chops.
The band wrapped up its set with two songs from their new album,
Stolen Moments. "The Pirate Queen" and "MacIntyre Heads
South" are both steeped in Irish culture, the first about County
Mayo's Grace O'Malley of Elizabethan times; the latter, Brown said,
about 14 Irish monks on a seven-year, sixth-century voyage in a
leather boat from Galway to Newfoundland.
Bluegrass legend Del McCoury took the stage to begin a run of three
sets by some of the finest, best-established pickers of the genre
over the past several decades.
With sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, the group, attired
in natty suits, clustered around a single microphone to harmonize
before stepping out to take virtuoso solos on their respective
They played a request from a previous gig, as is often their wont,
"Body and Soul," followed by "Nashville Cats" and "Cotton-Eyed Joe"
before Del McCoury introduced bassist Alan Bartram to sing the Hank
Williams classic, "You Win Again."
The highlight of the set, though, might have been the stunning cover
of Richard Thompson's ode to an outlaw, his red-haired sweetheart
and his motorcycle, "'52 Vincent."
McCoury's been doing the song for years now, but it nonetheless
wins him some new converts every time.
From there it was a steady downhill hot-picking roll toward the
appearances of Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, through "The Company
We Keep," "Logging Man," "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray," with
its four-part harmonies, "She Can't Hurt Me Now," "All Aboard" and
When Watson, who followed, takes you on a musical journey with his
amazing flat-picking guitar, you might feel like you just arrived
in his backyard for a barbecue.
Accompanied by David Holt on a shiny National steel guitar, the
bluegrass legend acknowledged as much himself: "I'm as informal
up here as if you were in my backyard," Watson told the crowd.
Known for being one of the first to play old fiddle tunes on guitar,
the gentle blind man from the Appalachian Mountains is a humble
genius with his instrument, and he hasn't lost a lick at 82.
He picked with pure emotion and ringing clarity on the likes of
old-timey favorites like "Shady Grove" and "The Train that Carried
My Girl from Town." "He's one of the smoothest guitarists I've ever
heard," said Bruce Gold, a Nashville native who just moved to San
Francisco. "He sets the standard for traditional bluegrass mountain
Doc's not afraid to play blues either, as he and Holt demonstrated
after Holt had told the crowd how the two of them share a "terrible"
circumstance, the loss of a child. Holt lost a daughter and Doc's
son, Merle, died in a mid-'80s tractor accident.
Later in the set they were joined by Doc's grandson Richard Eddy
Watson, Merle's son, on guitar.
A down-home version of "Sittin' on Top of the World" featured more
haunting slide guitar by Holt.
Watson also did a sleepy, country-style rendition of the classic
"Milk Cow Blues" and a spirited version of Mississippi John Hurt's
"Got the Blues, Can't be Satisfied."
At one point, Doc sang and picked the classic "Summertime," and the
sky actually got brighter and the sun threatened to break through
the gray clouds.
Earl Scruggs' rolling banjo riffs demand plenty of reverence and
respect, and they're also damn sweet to hear. The 81-year-old
Scruggs' three-finger "Scruggs style picking" has come to be almost
synonymous with bluegrass banjo playing. With his son Gary Scruggs
on electric bass, his grandson on acoustic guitar and a stellar
band with a hot electric guitar, Scruggs was like pure royalty with
a hayseed attitude.
Dressed in a black suit, blue shirt and tie, he bridged the gaps
between folk, gospel, bluegrass, blues and rock. His show was
down-home as well as wide-ranging, with a good measure of sparkling
traditional bluegrass in rollicking versions of "Salty Dog" and
"Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms," a Carter family tribute called
"You are my Flower," with Scruggs on guitar, and a moaning, high
lonesome rendition of the Bill Monroe classic "In the Pines." Then
he served up a mellow crossover of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going
Nowhere," lending his voice to the chorus.
The country music Hall of Famer couldn't let the crowd go without
playing the "Ballad of Jed Clampett," the soundtrack for the '60s
TV sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies,"-the first bluegrass single to
top the country charts. He followed that with a smoking "Foggy
Mountain Breakdown," his tune that became the hit theme of the 1967
film "Bonnie and Clyde." Earl Scruggs couldn't help but smile through
those two tunes, and neither could the crowd.
Texas troubadour Steve Earle may be the closest thing we have to
Woodie Guthrie these days. With a hard strum of the guitar, a little
blue-collar hillbilly twang and an emotional ode to another working
man, he's one natural storyteller.
Hellman introduced Earle, referring to himself as "one of Steve's
biggest fans," before Earle launched into some bone-chilling songs
with his signature nasal drawl and cutting lyrics. He mixed up some
old-timey tearjerkers and raucous country into a passionate stew,
sometimes seeming he might stomp his foot right through the stage.
His world-class band, the Bluegrass Dukes, added plenty of stunning
rhythm and melodies on the mandolin, fiddle and banjo.
Earle eased into the set with backwoods, mountain tones. You could
almost smell the dirt and feel the honesty when he let sling with
his union ode "Harlan Man." Much to the delight of the crowd,
Earle's politics came into play soon and remained a theme throughout
the gritty, emotional set.
He sent "Rich Man's War" out to Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a
soldier killed in Iraq who's become a flashpoint in the anti-war
movement, drawing lusty yelps and yahoos from the crowd hanging on
his hard-hitting lyrics. "He pulls no punches, tellin' it like it
is about war and big business, and plays with a lot of soul," said
John Betts of Palo Alto. Later Earle told the crowd, "we have a
mainstream movement against the war now, and I just wanted to thank
places like (San Francisco) that have been there since day one."
Songwriter Earle delivers his lyrics like a plainspoken country
boy. "I come here every year to sing this song," he drawled, plowing
into the late Lowell George's trucker song "Willing," with the
chorus "Just give me weed, whites and wine, and show me a sign, and
I'll be willing." Always eclectic, Earle said he thought his next
tune "was more what Paul McCartney had in mind" as he played a
jangly guitar on the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You," with lots
of harmony from the Dukes.
All in all, it was a very satisfied crowd that made its way back
into the city after a full day of witnessing the legends of the
past, stars of the present and pioneers of the future on the Hardly
Strictly Bluegrass Banjo Stage.
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